On special occasions, guests at the Ozark Medieval Fortress have enjoyed presentations about Medieval health care. Sometimes guests have asked about Medieval doctors and health care at the Good Wife’s area where she talks about healing herbs.
People of the Middle Ages were very much aware of the value of the healing herbs. On tour, this is explained by the Good Wife with details about the different plants and how they were used. One of the three major purposes of the garden itself is the growing of medicinal herbs. (The other two are food and dyes). In addition to the general common knowledge of herbs, the village Good Wife was available for consultation, as were physicians. There were also “specialists” like midwives to deliver babies, barbers to bleed patients, blacksmiths to pull teeth and monks to determine if the problem was natural or a punishment from God.
In the 13th Century, a trained physician was rare and respected. In Northern Europe there were only two medical schools: one at Paris and another at Montpelier. Those schools called for eight years of coursework and an additional year with an experienced doctor. A doctor’s license would only then be issued and it was done in church in the name of the Pope. Although in the modern day, the Christian church and physicians reject them, medicine in the Middle Ages consisted of aspects of astrology, numerology and the consideration of the body‘s “humors”, which were phlegm, blood, bile and black bile.
On the other hand, what we would consider modern medicine was beginning. In the Medieval, hospitals began to appear and were supported by wealthy sponsors. Although bacteria was not understood, there was the beginning of the concept of isolation of the sick. There were several thousand leper colonies in France alone. Doctors advised that war wounds be washed in a boiled, salty herbal tea, which meant that without knowing it, they had sterilized the medicine. They also advised using honey on the wound to assist in healing, which we now know has antibacterial properties. Garlic was prescribed to help with the black bile humor, which we know now to be antibiotic.
However, doctors thought that bleeding a patient or the use of leaches was beneficial. This was commonly done by barbers as well. Doctors were at great risk of contamination from their patients. It was a common medical practice for a doctor to taste a patient’s urine to determine the sugar content. Yuck!
Health care is talked about a lot today, but no matter what the problems that we have, it is worthwhile to remember the benefits we enjoy compared to the people of the Middle Ages. We have a good blacksmith at the Ozark Medieval Fortress, but I have to say there is no way I would want him to use those tongs on one of my teeth!